As a child, I was surrounded by superstitious warnings: If I sat at the corner of the table, my mother would shout at me to move, since this was a sign I would never get married. If a shoe was upside down, it was an omen of bad luck. One time, I was severely punished for drawing a frame around my picture in the yearbook with black marker, which my mother believed had cursed me with some sort of impending death.
The belief in these superstitions might seem ludicrous to the majority of the Western World, but in my household, run by my Israeli-immigrant mother, it was part of daily life. No one is born superstitious—we learn to be superstitious from our parents, which is exactly what happened to me. Over the years, I've been able to let go of most of them (like, OK, I'm not going to die because my shoe is upside down), but there's one that I've never been able to escape: the Evil Eye.
Belief in the Evil Eye is a centuries-old tradition. The idea is basically that through a simple glare, similar to the stank eye, someone can bring supernatural harm upon you. It's more likely to happen when people are envious—your good fortune can provoke someone to give you the Evil Eye, sometimes unintentionally. In other words, if you tell people about the good things in your life, you're inviting them to curse you.
The Evil Eye was a convenient explanation for things like widespread disease, natural disasters, and sudden illness, before there were scientific explanations available. How else, in ancient times, could you explain why bad things happened to good people? Of course, nowadays, there are plenty of reasonable explanations. But that never stopped my family from warning me about it.
Family members regularly gave me necklaces with a hand-shaped charm (called a hamsa) or red strings to wear around my wrist, as protections against the Evil Eye. My grandmother would put her hand over my face, say a prayer in Hebrew, and remind me not to share my good news with anyone—especially my closest friends—lest I make them envious and cause them to curse me.
According to Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, people cling to these kinds of beliefs because they "provide what psychologists call an 'illusion of control.'" It's a way of coping with things out of our control, good or bad. Ironically, though, believing in the Evil Eye has become its own curse: It's contributed to my chronic anxiety, given me intense trust issues, and made me believe, at an early age, that everyone around me had a secret desire to see me fail.
"If you are anxious, [belief in] superstitions are more likely," Vyse told me. So, people who have anxiety seek a sense of control, but the false stability of superstitions can actually worsen anxiety.
Take, for example, a study from 2013, where researchers at the University of Chicago asked students to "jinx" themselves by saying out loud that they would not get into a car accident. The jinxed students were more likely to believe that they would get into a car accident than those who hadn't jinxed themselves.
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Not all superstitions are inherently negative, but the ones that are basically just make people more anxious.
"Fear of black cats or the number 13 brings its own anxiety," Vyse explained. "I see no real upside to this kind of superstition. We would all be better off if no one ever taught them to us." Women are more likely to believe in negative superstitions, and those beliefs can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, according to research.
But positive superstitions—like believing that certain things will bring good luck—can also help people cope with anxiety. Doing things like crossing your fingers, saying "break a leg," or holding onto a lucky charm have all been proven to improve performance, likely because it gives people a sense of control and confidence in whatever they're doing. Having anxiety is essentially feeling out-of-control, so positive superstitions can be a way to get around that.
Even the Evil Eye seems to have potential to yield positive results. A 2010 study conducted by researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands found that the fear of suffering the effects of envy made those in more enviable positions act pro-socially.
I asked Niels van de Ven, the lead researcher in that study, how exactly the fear of being cursed by our own friends can make us kinder. He boiled it down to social strategy: "Imagine that right now you are doing better than others. If you share some of your benefit, they are likely to do so in the future as well. This means that if you fall on hard times, others will help. The Evil Eye sort of institutionalizes such a norm in society."
For me though, the Evil Eye has only ever been a source of anxiety. I realize I've used it as an excuse to keep myself from getting close to people, even though what I really fear is being hurt, not cursed. But I'm working on reminding myself that I can't control the things that happen to me, and the Evil Eye shouldn't control my own anxiety. Today, I wear the jewelry my family members gave me more for the aesthetics than for its alleged magical powers. But, you know, I'm also not taking my chances.
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